Published May 08, 2019"It's always been ridiculous in a way," says JP Ahonen, creator of comic strip metal band Belzebubs, about black metal, the strip's musical well of inspiration.
The subgenre, which once represented a bastion of outside thinking, has turned slowly into a caricature of itself. Ahonen picked up on that, and drew a cartoon black metal band that made every trope to be as self-aware as could be.
"As much as I like the imagery and the mystique," Ahonen tells Exclaim! in an interview, "I think it's funny to picture a band in full costume trying to go grocery shopping."
The comic strip follows Hubbath, Obesyx, Sløth and Samaël as they live their lives in the most metal way possible. Hubbath summons a portal to walk his dog through hell; Sløth and his girlfriend try out "sexorcisms." It's all wonderfully cringe-y, pun-based humour, which is exactly what's needed to save black metal from disappearing into its own netherworld. Picture Family Circus featuring a bloodthirsty group of Satanists.
Ahonen started making comics for his local paper while at the University of Lapland in 2003. His first weekly comic 'Villimpi Pohjola' (Northern Overexposure) found success, but Ahonen wasn't satisfied.
"It's very improvised," he says. "Every week I sort of scrape together something and panic.
"Back in 2015, I was suffering from a burnout. I was depressed, because I couldn't get things done at work. I needed something to loosen myself up. I couldn't shake this perfectionist side of my persona. I kept getting caught up in details that really didn't matter."
Relief came in the form of an online contest, the Inktober Challenge.
"It's a challenge where you 'ink' something together for each day of October and publish it with the hashtag #inktober. It's supposed to improve your skills, but I saw it as an opportunity to whip myself into shape without thinking too much; there was a set timeline. For some reason, I improvised two black metal guys talking about shirts on my first try."
Ahonen had planted the seeds of Belzebubs. The idea of these corpse-painted fools living their ordinary lives appealed to him immediately.
"I made black metal a theme for the whole Inktober Challenge," he says. "I drew about 30 one-shot gags or comics, and that was it. I did it mostly as a self-care project."
Ahonen ended up reworking the pieces and publishing them online. So far, Belzebubs have racked up over 200,000 fans on Facebook. But when it came time for Belzebubs to finally record their debut, Pantheon of the Nightside Gods, Ahonen left it to the professionals.
"My teenage years were split between comics and guitar," he reminisces. "I didn't have bands, though; I had various projects. I was always very intimidated about needing to take it live. I originally wanted 20-second clips for the comic, but a musician friend of mine came on board."
Ahonen name checks Immortal, Rotting Christ and early Dimmu Borgir as the main influences on Belzebubs' style, but reaffirms that they represent the overall black metal scene as a whole.
"There's so much more potential with the music," he says. "I love how it doesn't matter who is actually doing it. It's the characters who are playing."
Obviously, Belzebubs can't avoid comparisons to that other great metal cartoon band, the dearly departed Dethklok. Ahonen laughs at the mention of the name.
"It's funny actually, a friend of mine worked on the animation for that show. He mentioned it sometimes, but I didn't really understand that it was a full cartoon band that released real music and everything. I only found out about that after people started posting GIFs of it on Belzebubs' page."
Black metal has gone through some seismic changes in the last few years. A new wave of sounds, from Deafheaven to Imperial Triumphant, not to mention the reality-check film Lords of Chaos, has turned the genre on its head. The original forest gremlins now seem pretty camp. JP Ahonen recognizes and appreciates this. Belzebubs is not meant to terrify; where others see evil or theatrics, he sees tongue-in-cheek comedy.
And Belzebubs are growing in popularity. At this rate, they could become the best comic strip band since Opus the Penguin's Deathtöngue.
Pantheon of the Nightside Gods is out now via Century Media. Belzebubs by JP Ahonen is available via Top Shelf Productions.